Lessons Learned

This past weekend marked a year since most companies, like my own, announced that they were closing their offices and moving everyone to work from home. We were fortunate to already have a highly distributed workforce in the IT business, so from a technology perspective, the shift was seamless. Needless to say, we had no idea what was truly in store for all of us on other fronts.

The past year was “unprecedented” because, in addition to a once in a 100-year pandemic, we were fighting on multiple fronts, and navigating several national and global crises at the same time.

It is with gratitude that I take this moment to reflect on the one year anniversary of our national lock-down and what I learned over that time:

Crises Can Bring Out the Best in Us

The pandemic transformed how we perceived time and like a tidal wave, claimed too many precious lives, forever altering our reality. It also showcased the resilience of the human spirit. First responders and healthcare workers showed all of us the meaning of true heroism. We saw that with our own extended vCom family, from an employee’s sister who cared for patients tirelessly as a nurse; to an employee’s spouse who, as a grocery store manager, worked around the clock. And even with the financial uncertainty, when we asked our employees if they wanted to help local businesses and non-profits, the outpour of support was truly inspiring. Twice we raised funds and matched them, and the community response was heart-warming. One employee made face shields, while many made masks. Several employees’ kids used their talents to help disabled or underprivileged kids in nearby communities or online via zoom. It was moving to see and hear stories of people making an impact in so many creative ways, to support those in need.

Lesson 1: We can choose how to react to crises; and even in the most challenging of times, never underestimate people’s capacity and impact.

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Communication is Key

With the unpredictability all around us, and the uncertainty of when or where the next shoe would drop, we leaned into over-communicating. We strongly felt that our employees needed the knowledge that their source of livelihood was a refuge, and that we had a plan. We started with weekly “state of the union” communications with our teams. We practiced one of our principal values, transparency, sharing with our team our concerns for the business in the form of a SWOT analysis. We celebrated our Strengths and discussed how to capitalize on Opportunities; while being mindful of, and fully transparent about, our internal Weaknesses and external Threats. We reiterated time and time again our values, our mission, and the importance of vulnerability-based trust as the foundation of a healthy organization. As we made decisions about hiring or compensation, we openly dialogued our rationale. I was pleased to see managers instinctively make more time for one-on-one meetings and personal check ins. We recognized the importance of empathy and invited everyone to lean on their teammates for support as they were navigating personal challenges.

In time of crisis, people need to lean on their leaders to lay out the facts, good, bad or ugly; communicate a plan of action; over-communicate and keep them apprised of progress; provide a stable environment in the midst of chaos and noise; and to be empathetic to their challenges.

Lesson 2: Treat people like you want to be treated, including being truthful, transparent and empathetic. Over-communicate to seek alignment and avoid surprises.

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Assessment + Agility = Survival

Our business has historically been built on relationships nurtured in person. We acquired many of our legacy customers by attending industry conferences and hosting social events. Like everyone else, this all changed this past year, and we needed to pivot and change course. Our business development team quickly shifted their strategy. Having survived the financial crisis of 2009, we knew that businesses desperately needed our help to rein in IT spend; it was a matter of finding opportunities to get in front of them to showcase our value, in the midst of everyone else also hitting them up for business. We tried a couple of new lead generation companies, and eventually partnered with one. We launched new promotional programs. We updated our messaging for prospects and customers. We quickly adapted our software training and certification programs. After countless meetings, strategy discussions, and trial-and-error, we started to see results. Our number of newly acquired mid-market customers grew by triple digits year over year, and our software adoption increased by healthy double digits.

Had we not done those things, and had we not shifted strategy, embraced change, tried and failed, I believe we would have been in real trouble.

Lesson 3: In a crisis, you must accept reality, assess the terrain, identify opportunities, and practice agility.

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In-Person Still Matters

We started our distributed workforce back in 2004, going to where talent was, rather than being regionally or office-bound. Over time, we grew to having people across two countries and 18 states in the US. With that said, we’re a highly social bunch. Most remote employees came to the office to partake in our monthly company lunch or a team event once or twice a quarter. Our travel and entertainment budget has steadily grown year over year. Clearly that all changed this past year. And while we have moved most of our interactions online, and encouraged virtual social events over video, from happy hours and meditations, to baby showers and game night; we sorely miss being in each other’s company.

While work-from-home has, and will always be, more than an intermediary measure for us, we still firmly believe that the office will be put to good use. Everyone I have spoken to agrees that there’s no substitute for in-person interactions, as they have experienced first-hand when circumstances have enabled them to safely have a live white-board session or enjoy a socially-distanced happy hour with a handful of people.

Lesson 4: Distributed is the way to go. But, as my business partner put it, we all still need a place to “celebrate, collaborate, congregate and communicate.”

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Actions Are Louder than Words

The ugliness of ongoing racism and discrimination was a bitter pill to swallow, one too hard to fathom in the 21st century. Many companies rushed to make statements online, admonishing systemic racism and supporting Black Lives Matter. The problem is: they settled for a statement. While speaking out and having your voice heard is important, far more important, in our view, was what action we would take to have lasting impact. One of my favorite quotes from Christopher Nolan is: “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s your actions that define you.” So we focused on walking the walk. Once you decide to act, there’s a myriad of things you can do and amazing resources to leverage to make an impact and help change the narrative. Our CEO signed the CEO Pledge, an agreement by a collection of CEOs and business leaders who have made a commitment to championing this cause within their businesses and communities and formed CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. Our DE&I committee is leveraging some of their content, in addition to building our own library of content, to create awareness within our org about unconscious bias and the realities of systemic racism, so we can further educate and do our part to eliminate discrimination. We have donated decommissioned and reconditioned PCs to an organization serving underprivileged BIPOC students who were thrilled to have them. We have partnered with an organization to offer internships and scholarships to BIPOC college students from neighboring underprivileged communities. We dedicated one of our annual holiday donations to a black-owned non-profit and supporting black students. And we’ve identified a program to provide support to black-owned businesses, which when you think about it, is the ultimate win-win.

I firmly believe that it will take all of us putting the time, effort and resources to make lasting change.

Lesson 5: Take a stance, but put your money where your mouth is.   

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Focus on What matters

The immense loss that we’ve witnessed has been jarring. The past year has been a wake up call about the unpredictability and the preciousness of life. On a business level, this has motivated me to contemplate what’s important and what isn’t. It has given our leadership team the opportunity and drive to focus and examine our mission in the marketplace. On a personal level, one silver lining to being cooped up inside is the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot more time with my family, particularly my high-school aged kids who would have otherwise been with their friends or in their myriad of activities. Like many other leaders I’ve spoken to, I have cherished and I’m grateful for that time with my kids before they go out into the world.

As we head toward the other side of the pandemic, everyone could benefit from examining their focus and personal or business mission; and from being more proactive and deliberate to make time for the people and activities that matter most in life.

Lesson 6: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on what matters most, particularly the journey and who you’re with. 

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There is no question that, along with these strategies, luck played an important role in our ability to navigate the toughest year in our modern era. Our industry certainly benefited from the expansion of IT services.

This past year required courage, reflection, intentionality, resolve, lots of patience, and a willingness to adapt. It has given us the opportunity to examine who we are, what we stand for, and who we want to be. It’s provided us a wide perspective on who, in life, is a true hero and who isn’t; what merits our focus and attention and what shouldn’t.

My heart goes out to all of those who have suffered the loss of a loved one, or the loss of their dreams. Despite the immense hardship for so many, I am confident that the experiences of this past year will make us stronger, as we continue to grow and improve.

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